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Posted by on May 27, 2012

The Gift of Wisdom: Ancient but Pertinent?

When I think of Wisdom my mind always throws up pictures of Michelangelo-like figures with ponderous looks on their faces.  The scene is very serious and feels absolutely irrelevant to my life.  A second later I am seeing two figures on a canvas mat  struggling to get control of a situation.   Both images are important and both apply to me.  Living in a wise way is very important and serious and this life skill plays out in my life as a pitched battle between my ego or inner child and God.  We are down on the mat wrestling away all day long.  At times the struggle for me to be wise is funny.  I am the child with a Look or Big Hunk candy bar, covered in chocolate who badly needs a bath.  I am wading through my life with a terrific personal coach whom I would like to ignore.  I would like to lay down in my life and be waited upon.  I would like to wave a magic wand and have all my troubles just go away.  Why not?

Wisdom is a gift from God which empowers us to do what is best.  Wisdom is the opposite of impulsiveness, self-indulgence and short-sightedness. In the secular world, wisdom is doing what is best because of fear or because of personal gain.  In the spiritual world, wisdom is sought because it draws us to growth, generosity, inclusivity, justice, love, and heroism.  Wisdom is what God expresses in the world.  When we exercise wisdom, we rise above what we want to consider what is best.  The two might be the same.  In any case, the activity of considering what is best frees us from the possible deception that can come by just following my feelings.  Wisdom asks if a thought or course of action is taking us to a bad place in life where we have been before or if a decision is taking us to a positive place.

One of the greatest deceptions in life is called the Pleasure Principle.  According to this principle, if something feels good it is good and if something feels bad it is bad.  This line of thinking is fallacious.  Obviously heroin may feel good, but it is horribly destructive.  Telling a lie may feel good right now and yet end up causing harm to me and a lot of pain.  Eating french fries may feel good now but the health results later may feel quite bad.  There are many things in life that feel bad, such as asking forgiveness or  letting someone inconvenience us, that when performed cause us to feel good almost immediately.  People who are wise can distinguish between short and long term results.  They are committed to the truth and to wanting to be joyful, not just comfortable.

Wisdom takes knowledge and uses it in the best possible ways.  It thinks broadly rather than just individualistically.  Wisdom perceives the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything in the world, so that when we have the gift of wisdom, we live with the Earth and all it inhabitants in mind.  We understand that what we do affects everything on the Earth.  My thoughtful and healthy living affects everyone.  Wisdom therefore does have discipline as a skill.  Another word for this is restraint.  It can be fun not to waste.  It can be really exciting not to be driven by addictions and obsessions.  I can and often am driven by food and things to which I am attracted that I want to own.  I love cinnamon rolls and designer fabric.  I cannot eat the first nor afford the second.  It is so lovely to feel free of pining for these.  Wisdom is sinking in and I do not feel the pull or deprivation of these anymore.  Wisdom has gifted me with excitement over better health and a good hold on my budget.  This process is bound up with good Discernment.  I am aware of the difference of quality in feelings between immediate gratification versus inner peace.

Another feature of wisdom worth considering is attachment to outcomes.  A relative recently said that he wanted to help someone but did not want to be attached to the outcome. By this he meant that he did not need to be in control of what was best for someone.  He also did not see any value in feeling bad if the other person decided not to take him up on his offer.  Implied in this was the fact that we cannot change or fix other people.  Only they and God can do that.  Wisdom sees the sense in all this.  When we are wise, we realize that may see someone else’s situation as it really is or we may not.  We know that only God sees the whole picture.  I may want someone to save money or be less depressed, but I inevitably do not have all the facts.   In any course of conversation or action I take, I should first put the situation in God’s hands and wait to see if the various options I have are out of my fears, anxieties, or anger or something that is best for everyone concerned.

I know several people who are very activated emotionally by the suffering of others.  They want to help people with problems or obstacles immediately.  That’s very understandable and usually good.  But, sometimes it is good to not help people.  We should be compassionate but may decide not to step in and do things for people.  If this decision is motivated by wisdom it may not be easy but it may be best.  We do wise things because they are correct, not because we feel guilty or because we want people to be dependent on us or approve of us.

Wisdom is cited throughout the Bible.  There are free online concordances which can lead to all the references to wisdom.  Reading these texts and ruminating on them can lead to important ideas and graces.

A very good book on wisdom from a non-Judeo-Christian perspective is The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz.

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Posted by on May 25, 2012

A Second Gift of the Holy Spirit: Understanding

Events happen, both good and bad, feelings arise, people say amazing or unusual things; but, we may not understand these or perceive why they happened.  We might also be filled with a great peace and have no idea why it arose.  The gift of Understanding is given so that we may perceive the meaning of things.  Understanding builds on but goes beyond a basic intellectual process in which we analyze the causes and meanings of all the facets of life.

God wants us to understand him/herself first.  This is a lifelong process.  As it says in Isaiah 55: “My ways are not your ways.”  As we call upon God and study God in the Bible, the liturgy, and the words of others, we increase in our understanding of how God works in the world and in us.  We might want God to change us or heal us. We might want this right now.  But God may want to leave some aspects of us unchanged or may lead us through a long process.  God’s ways may seem like a long road trip on which we make many stops, sojourn in all kinds of places, get diverted, break down, climb hills, meet the strangest people, etc.  In this process of coming to understand God, we will become more like God.

Understanding moves us closer to the reality we ponder if that reality encompasses goodness, truth, beauty and/or love.   As we understand more and more, we will be capable of understanding even more.  Understanding allows us to be increasingly open and able to incorporate even more awareness because it gives us a mature knowledge of how things work.  After we realize that God works in steps and gradually accustoms us to hard work, we begin to appreciate the progress we have made and not argue so much with the difficult things that come our way.  Frustrations and disappointments start looking like opportunities.  The computer acting up or having someone snap at me can be an opportunity to be an Observer Self and to experiment with putting the computer in God’s hands or taking a deep breath before replying — a response I may never have tried before now.  We may want a hurt or fear to go away and not realize that the way it is going to go away is to have a similar bad experience happen or to relive the original bad experience and be given the grace to go through it with God or with another loving  person.  The more we surrender our lives to God, the more we will understand how God is involved and why things are happening in the way they are.

Understanding includes perceiving who we are and why we do the things we do.  It is the gift to be able to penetrate deeper and deeper into the unconscious and to gain insight into all those good or impaired aspects of ourselves from which we hide. In this gift we travel back into our family and personal histories and see how everyone and all the various ups and downs make sense.  We understand how our era, birth order, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class,  personality characteristics, physicality, geography, and religion have contributed to who we are.  Along the way, God gifts us with insight, even into horrendous things that may have happened. It is not that what happened was perfectly fine; but, with understanding we see how God took the terrible and brought something unexpected and beneficial out of it for us.  There can be an understandable and difficult struggle with understanding.  Things that have caused pain are normally repressed.  We do not want to think about them.  These memories may even be unavailable to our conscious minds. Spiritual growth, though, involves integrating the painful into our consciousness so that it can be used in new and positive ways.  Repressed feelings and memories also take energy away from us because it takes quite a bit of psychic energy to monitor and filter repressed material.  Little by little, God draws us to understand ourselves.  We begin to see what is motivating us or blocking us. We also begin to see what our deepest desires are.

Understanding also refers to perceiving the truth about others.  It implies an empathy for others.  Understanding involves getting at the meaning of what is happening in our relationships.  We may think that a particular relationship is about fun or adventure, but it may really be about being competitive with that person in order to feel good about myself.  I may think that someone dominates conversations all the time just to be mean or to get attention, but in fact, that person may be terrified of being seen as him or herself and is trying to distract the group from the supposed truth.  We may be gifted with understanding what is really going on with people.  We may see past the appearances.

Finally, understanding extends to the course of history.  Societal events can be frightening or depressing.  The gift of understanding can allow us to see what God is doing with humanity.  The Paraclete can enter our minds and feelings and make us realize the growth process that lays before us on this Earth.  We can calm down because we see meaning in the challenges that happen everyday.  We can see the freedom that people exercise and the choices they make as part of the struggle to grow up.  God cannot force humans to be good.  We have to learn it on our own.  The gift of understanding gives us a perception of what is happening on this bigger scale.  It allows us to surrender to a God who is smarter than we.  To trust more, to hope more.

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Posted by on May 23, 2012

The Feast of Pentecost, The Holy Spirit and The Seven Gifts: Why it Matters

Today more than ever we dig deep within to center ourselves around calm and inner peace.  We don’t do this to tranquilize ourselves. We do this to be in the best possible position to live fully.  For believers, this includes seeking a real growing relationship with God.  There is a dance going on between our decisions and actions and God’s involvement in our lives, a dance which we call grace.  We have freedom and gifts.  God has insight, power and ingenuity.  If we consent to His involvement in our lives, He can move us into positive places we cannot even imagine.

The person of the Trinity whom we identify as a creative and loving agent of action and change is the Holy Spirit.  This person is believed to be the action of God in the world — both visible and invisible.  One of the names for the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete.  This is an ancient Greek word meaning “one who consoles, uplifts, comforts.”  In the New Testament it also is translated as “helper” and “advocate.”  The Holy Spirit or Paraclete is the divine reality whom we celebrate on Pentecost.  “Pentecost” comes from the word “pente” meaning fifty which refers to 50 days after Easter. At the Last Supper Jesus said he was going to send us the Paraclete.  He let us know that this third person of the Trinity, who expresses the love between the Father and the Son, would be the spirit of Christ operative in the created world — that we would not be alone.

On Pentecost we focus on God as Paraclete in the world of space and time, of the particulars of life.  The Paraclete comforts and uplifts us by working in us and in our lives to give us greater holiness and power for good in the world.  We speak of the work the Paraclete does in us as the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We are going to take a look at all seven in a series of posts.  In the Bible there are a number of lists of  spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. They can be found in Isaiah 11, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter. These are all indeed gifts of the Paraclete, but many of the “gifts” in these texts are roles and leadership skills that are gifted by God.  The Seven Gifts on which we will focus are basic qualities that all human persons need no matter what they do in life.  We are given these seven gifts at baptism but the Sacrament of Confirmation gives us to grace to live these fully out in the world of decision and action.

Knowledge is the first gift we will consider.  In the everyday world we use knowledge constantly.  It matters that I know how to get my car fixed or that it is important to check the oil periodically.  A dentist needs to know how to work on my teeth.  Knowledge as a gift of the Paraclete who wants to help us grow fully first includes the knowledge of God.  As we mature we will know God more and will also develop in our images, concepts, and feelings about God.  We will come to know ourselves better and better as well.  To the extent that we are open we will come to more and more realistic and energizing knowledge of God and ourselves.  If we fear God we may learn more positive things about God — maybe from talking to others.  If we are depressed we may find out why.  Much of this knowledge is from God.  We think we are learning on our own.  But, in fact, it is the Paraclete who is offering us knowledge all the time.  We have resistances in us and God is working all the time to help us see the truth, often a positive truth.  God presents ideas to us from different angles constantly and we can consent to be open to these prompts.  My eye may fall on a magazine in the doctor’s office and suddenly I can feel myself slightly more inclined to actually do exercise every day.  The ideas in the article, the knowledge, may have made it easier to see how I can move into a new life skill.

Knowledge of others is also a great gift.  I may not know why a neighbor or relative is so hard for me to get along with and then find out that he is in pain all the time.  I may then find out that the medication he is on has terrible side effects from a commercial on television.  Or, I may find out that an adult school near me has a watercolor class that is very reasonable in price.  I may need that for my emotional life.  The Paraclete is gifting us with knowledge internally and from external sources all the time.  We only need to consent to not try to control what the this Consoler sends our way. God sees us totally and knows what we need.  We can practice a daily Examen or a time of reflection on how things are going and ask to see what we need to see.  In that way we can receive the gift of knowledge and become more fully who we were born to be.

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Posted by on May 11, 2012

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

 

Julian of Norwich - Stained Glass Window from Church

 

May 13 is the unofficial Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, the English mystic and saint of the Middle Ages.  We cannot be sure of her birth and dates but she lived approximately from 1342-1416.  Her lifespan and location were situated in times of great distress in England.  Three waves of the Black Death had swept over England and Norwich was particularly hard hit as it was a commercial center, especially of the wool-textile trade with the Netherlands, which brought with it the bacteria from the Continent.  Julian was an anchoress at the church of St. Julian.  We have a historical record of people visiting her for advice and prayers.  We do not know why she was not canonized by the Catholic Church.  One reason is likely that she left behind relatively few writings.  Another is likely because her writings contained teachings that would have been considered controversial by some scholars.  Teachings about Christ as mother and that God sees our sins as a way for us to learn about ourselves would have offended or worried many clerics of her day.

In 1373 we read that Julian had 16 visions in which she was saw and heard revelations related to God, creation, evil, sin,  salvation, and the human person. She recorded these revelations at the time and then some 20 years later produced a longer version, called the Long Text, in which she integrated the many thoughts communicated to her by Christ about the meaning of the 16 visions and locutions.

Julian is optimistic in a time of when people questioned the goodness of life and how God regarded them.  She recorded that Christ said to her that “All will be well and all is well.” She explains how all can and will be well. Julian also recounts wonderfully warm images of us and Christ who holds us tenderly and celebrates us as his “crown.”

Another reason to celebrate this great saint is that she is believed to be the first woman to write a book in the English language.  She is also a pioneer, with Chaucer, in creating literature in Middle English.  After many years of Norman control of England, the French and their language were driven out.  The English language had degenerated into a language of the lower classes with a very poor vocabulary.  Julian is responsible for creating many new and very useful words to articulate her scholarly theological presentations and to give colorful descriptions of what she saw in the visions.

Julian’s texts, which she referred to as the “shewings” (Showings in contemporary libraries), are very inspiring and provide satisfying answers to many questions which Christians have.

Image of Stained Glass Window borrowed from Satucket Lectionary entry for the Feast of Julian of Norwich

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Posted by on May 1, 2012

Spiritual Growth and Discernment

Spiritual Growth and Discernment

 

We make hundreds of decisions every day.  Over and over we express our desires and choices.  In the process we are literally creating ourselves.  This is a very active and hopeful thing.  In the process of decision-making we may make decisions with reflection, deliberation and conscious intent or we may decide out of habit or in reaction to a feeling, without much thought.

Most people think they choose freely what they will have in their lives and what they will become.  I prove that wrong every time I get near most pastries or warm, newly-baked bread.  I am immediately consumed by an intense desire for these.  I really have to remind myself of my commitment to feeling better rather than to reveling in sugar and all that baked goods symbolize for me.  Simple carbohydrates make me feel terrible physically but they also temporally fill an empty hole inside my psyche.  When I chose not to eat them I feel strong emotional forces pulling me toward that class of foods.

Noticing the different feelings inside me and my thought patterns as I struggle to get past the Cinnamon and Almond Ring at Trader Joe’s is really revealing.  I’m a grown person but I become very little and whiny as I  crawl over to the vegetables and lettuce just beyond the bread and pastries.  After all, I work hard and deserve a treat!  I could just eat a slice and throw the rest away.  I actually could do that  (and I have in the past).

The desire to be closer to God requires letting God tell me what would please him.  That sounds very old fashioned and odd.  But, there’s no way around it.  Knowing God is knowing what is best — best for me and best for the world.  I cannot eat sugar and refined carbohydrates and feel good.  I just can’t.  I love that stuff!!  Knowing God and growing in holiness means that I would like to know which actions in my life would help me to be happy.  Discernment is the skill with which I can learn to evaluate what is the best choice at any juncture in my road every day, all day long.  There are certain feelings and thoughts that characterize good decisions and others which characterize poor decisions.

Learning those and applying them seems easy enough.  One of the problems is that most of us have been fooling ourselves for years about what seems best — because we all love a plausible excuse to eat coffee cake or to buy new clothes when we really don’t need any, etc.  And, some of us have been unconsciously choosing what we think other people want for us,  so we do not know how we feel about most things in life.  What if I dislike red sweaters but have been given a number of them because I look good in red?  What if I really dislike a timeshare at Tahoe but almost the whole family loves it? What if I want to go back to school but would have to inconvenience a lot of people?  There are ways to know the truth of what is best and to know the ways I postpone the truth and get in my own way.

Becoming mature in these skills, also called discernment, involves attention to our minds, feelings and imaginations.   I realized many years ago that my imagination can be both helpful and unhelpful.  My imagination can help me image myself as a happy person when I learn new skills or improve relationships.  My imagination can also tell me that facing someone’s anger will destroy me.  That frightening image is probably not true.  Someone’s displeasure at me does not have to harm me.  My imagination does not have to motivate me to do actions that are not necessary or helpful.  My mind can help me get to the truth of how I make decisions.  My mind can also help me slow down as I go through life.  I can become an observer and can use my mind to see what my usual processes in life are.  I can use my mind to consider my feelings and images.  I can recognize if I am peaceful or afraid.  I can also see if frightening images are being thrown up in front of me which are not true but set me back.

This reflection process sounds cold to me but in fact I find it an adventure.  When I know that someone is upset with me I automatically feel that any interaction with that person is going to be frightening.  But, I have found lately that not avoiding a conversation and instead standing my ground has been almost exhilarating.   Nothing bad happened.  The other person may have a point or may be wrong, but either way I am not overwhelmed.  I can listen to his or her words and make decisions in the midst of the confrontation.  I can observe myself wanting to run away and talk myself into being calm.  Wow, what an advance!

Everything so far applies to any situation in which I want to know what my unconscious mind is doing and also when I want to observe what others are doing.  In the midst of worry or upset, I can pray for the peace to see what the influences are: whether feelings, thoughts or images.  I can use this information to make decisions.

Of the three sources of information, our feelings usually provide the most important information for discernment.  Although I have in mind emotional feelings when I say this, I also believe that our bodies provide valuable information in their reactions to thoughts and circumstances.  If I make a decision about my job and do not sleep that night, I want to ask why that reaction happened.  In the morning I may feel terrible physically but still feel I have made the right decision.   It may be that my mind worked during the night to consider all the options once again.  If I decide to move to another city but feel inner turmoil which I try to shut up, I may need to dig deeper, beyond my conscious reasons for moving to see if I am also moving for another reasonable but destructive reason e.g. to please my mother.  The saints are people who became good at distinguishing between inner peace and inner anxiety or deception.

To use the example above, my mother may be lonely.  I may feel guilty for not visiting her or calling her. But, I may have a very good job which I love and so I should not move.  There are ways to work with the circumstances and feelings of guilt without moving.  Doing that work requires facing the truth and the possible displeasure of someone.  But, it would also mean that I am honoring my true self at this time.  I need help to do discernment.  I cannot have detachment from my feelings of fear or attachment to approval on my own.  I pray throughout the day.  I first ask for insight —  that I not be blind.  I want to see if I am avoiding anything.  I prefer to know what my reality is.  Secondly, if I have to decide about something, I ask for help to see what is best and to be able to do it.  This happens a lot with how I use my time.  I usually have a mental or written list of what I want to do in a day.  I ask God to help me know what is most important.  I usually see what is best, but I often argue about it.  I want to do it all.  I want to paint the front door when it is 50 degrees and damp outside.  I want to spend the morning sewing when I need to file paperwork and write.  I want to cook three different recipes when I should just get one done.

The discernment which is going to make me happier is going to be a process in which I see what my feelings, thoughts and images are.  It is going to require that I make a commitment to follow what brings me inner peace.  It is also going to require that I use strategies to counter negative thinking and pressure from others or the Enemy of our human nature.  The more skilled at countering this, the more likely I am to be at peace.  When I am ambivalent, I experience much more pressure than when I am clear that I am not going to be doing actions motivated by emptiness,  fear, or pride.

At some point we have to surrender to the truth if we want to be happy.  We have to follow the footprints of inner peace.  If an option before us brings us peace and joy, then we are on the right path.  If an option brings us turmoil or a feeling of shame, we are operating out of poor motives.  We need to go back to see what is driving us and pray for the strength to make the right decision.

“A Fork in the Path” – Image by K. Pozos

 

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Posted by on Apr 20, 2012

How Can God Heal Abuse and Trauma?

How Can God Heal Abuse and Trauma?

A door can still open ...

As we reflect on the Resurrection of Christ we cannot help but wonder how it changed anything.  Christians believe that the triumph of life over death and light over darkness was more than just an isolated event in history.  The Resurrection is understood as a cosmic event in which the entire space-time reality was shot through with God’s presence. The world remained a mix of “wheat and weeds,” but after the Resurrection the indwelling Spirit of God works within that reality to bring about unprecedented healing, growth and holiness.

Abuse and trauma are never acceptable.  I experienced abuse for many years — verbal, physical and sexual.  It hurts and bends the person.  The damage is deep and reaches into all  the dimensions of one’s life.  Psycho-therapeutic experiences are normally necessary for someone to heal from the pain, anger and fear that come from abuse.  Telling the stories of abuse are a key part of healing. Practicing to work with life in new ways in order to avoid negative patterns is also helpful.  Using affirmations to counter self-hatred is important.  Setting boundaries and being firm about values helps the person to feel less vulnerable.

But there is a point when talking it out and new ways of living and communicating fall short of healing.  There is a well of pain that often does not go away.  Underneath all the hard work there is still a raw person who does not feel safe.  It is very hard to trust anyone.

I learned to not-trust any adults.  I also learned not to trust myself because I could not overcome my fear in order to fight back. I learned to criticize everything I thought, said and did.  I betrayed myself over and over out of fear.  What to do?  I knew there was a God out there but was not sure He would be interested in me.  This is a normal reaction from someone who has been regarded as unimportant and worthy of abuse.

If the traumatized person can pray at all, a door can open to safety that starts as the tiniest crack.  Within the mix of inner voices and emotions there is one voice which reaches into the sticky pain and feels or sounds safe.  The traumatized person is uniquely blessed to be able to discern the difference between his own inner voices and the voice of God.  This is because the abused person called out to herself over and over during the horrible times and discovered that at the time she had no power over the abuser.  The personal thoughts and voice of the abused one were complicit with the abuser. The abused person also knows the voice of the culture and the Devil because both of them bring inner chaos, depression and self-abuse.

If such a person can pray, even pray to be able to pray, there will begin the tiniest feeling of longing for love.  This is a miracle, because traumatized people usually do not want to feel anything.  Seeking love and finding authentic love from others and God can heal wounds.   It is a long process, but with the support of a therapist and a spiritual director the person traumatized by abuse can take a chance on attachment.  Abused persons on Ignatian retreats or practicing Ignatian contemplation have experienced amazing experiences of God loving them.  The voice of God within them is telling them that they are his beloved, that they are special.  People who have been abused often do not want to hear that voice because it will open up a floodgate of sadness.  But, after the crying, the voice does not disappear.  They are not talking to themselves.

Contemplative prayer experiences are real.  When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” he meant it.  Taking a chance on God doing something with the pain is worthwhile.  There are forms of injury only he can heal.

 Image by Paolo Neo, public domain

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Posted by on Apr 9, 2012

What is Holiness? Is it Wholeness?

People often think that being whole or holy involves being perfect in some way.  “Perfect” of course is defined in a million ways, but we can construct a picture and list of qualities that might encompass what we assume is the saintly person.  So, we would expect to see on this list:  seldom angry, patient, kind, generous, courageous, truthful, trusting, reverent, hopeful, zealous, loving, etc.  In her final year of life, as she was suffering from tuberculosis, Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote in her diary: ” Never leave a knife near a terminally ill person.”   She was a realistic and honest person.  She was not perfect in many ways, but she was a whole and holy person.  Saint Padre Pio yelled at people frequently and then was very gentle and kind with others.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola had a temper, but normally used it after a process of discernment.  Teresa of Avila talked back to Christ and questioned him often.

Behaving in perfect ways and trying to feel only nice feelings is a complete distraction from the real task of life.  Holiness, or even wholeness in the most secular terms, is very simple.  It is the ability to listen in a productive way.  There are a welter of voices within and around us.  The culture, our egos, our pasts, other people, God and evil, however you understand it, are all part of the mix of voices in our lives.  Within ourselves we have many levels that all have a voice.  We have the imprint of our parents within our memories: ” Stand up straight.”  “Eat everything on your plate.”  “Susan is bright.”  “You’ll never grow up.”  We have a frightened voice: “You can’t do that,” or a confident voice: “That’s easy.”  There are the lists inside: “First, go to the Doctor’s; then go to the Drugstore; then get gas; then get the kids; etc.”  And, there is the emotional and spiritual report: “I’m uncomfortable.” ” I’m aware that I am procrastinating.”  “I really want to quit repeating this pattern.”  A friend many years ago told me that we had to get married by the time we were 25 years old because after that we would be “all washed up.”  I believed her and sped around trying to meet more men!  It caused me to join a lot of organizations and waste a number of Sunday afternoons listening to types of Jazz I did not like, hiking in places I did enjoy, not to mention the unusual experiences I had attending psychological “encounter” groups.

These days it is very un-PC to say this, but I believe in personal evil and prefer to use the Ignatian term for this entity: “The enemy of our human nature.”  When someone is not in a state of negative thinking and has every reason either not to feel bad or to feel happy and a random and destructive thought or feeling enters his or her consciousness and destroys his or her peace, the classic response from the Christian tradition is to interpret this as coming from the Enemy. We may be hearing, remembering or seeing something psychological, but the intrusion is not just random.  We are not always just talking to ourselves.  God is constantly communicating and so are the enemy and the other voices as well.  It’s subtle and not superstition.  Why is this complex communication happening?  What are we supposed to do with this?  What has this got to do with holiness and wholeness?

This life on the Planet is a exercise in growth.  In the process of life we make choices and determine what we value.  We  are determined by certain factors but we also determine some of the conditions of our lives.  The process of becoming holy, the process by which the world gets a St. Francis or a Mother Teresa, is a process in which those people work over and over at hearing the better voices inside.  When a voice said: “Compassion feels better than money,” these people felt drawn to that voice.  When an inner voice said: ” Status is nauseating, phony,” these people felt its authenticity and took a chance on goodness.  When a voice says: “eat right, drink less, watch less television” or “read this book,” holy people obey the voice if it carries a feeling of peace or rightness with it.  Sorting out the voices, listening to the voice of God or one’s true self and then obeying these best voices is what makes people holy and truly whole.  Listening and obeying are not easy.  It takes a commitment to my best interests.  It is in my best interest not to play games.  I can spend the rest of my life procrastinating regarding the things I need to do to be happy.  I can also stay in a perpetual program to be defensive or angry, to punish people that have hurt me, or to prove that I am fine just the way I am.

At some point I may progress beyond that and also see how awesome God is.  The reality we call God is immense in His/Her intellect and in love.  Many modern people cannot stand entertaining the concept of God.  It is so uncool to admit the possibility of such a reality in many circles today.  But, if God exists and I know God does, this reality can get me to an authentic life.  I could end up happy and fully realize who I am.  Taking time and quiet to listen and note the voices within is a decision.  Admitting that I prefer a sleazy voice is okay.  I want any excuse not to be a grown up.  If a voice says that I should not eat something, say something, or go somewhere or that I should go to bed at a certain time, By God, I want to ask that voice: “who do you think you are…..?”

The path to holiness, exceptional living, being special in the best sense is a surrender to the wisest voice inside.  It has taken me many years to accept this fully.  This is far harder than parading around trying to be perfect.  The authentic voice within might ask you to be better than you think you are; the author may believe in you more than you do.

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Posted by on Apr 2, 2012

Providence/Grace and Free Will

We live in a world where we often feel pressured to prove that God exists and then we can be at a loss in explaining where God is.  Out in the world of work, everyone is supposed to pretend that they are very objective and scientific.  But, as we have said, empirical data is only one modality of space-time reality.  Experience is a valid category by which we learn and make decisions.  Following my gut feeling about how to approach a worry or a situation with a person can be very useful.  Trying things like prayer and finding out that something new, unexpected and helpful outside my usual “bag of tricks” is happening, can send me down a good path towards surrender to the ways of God.   No one can define exactly how this universe is set up in terms of cause and effect.  No one philosophy or great intellect can tell us definitively a way to control outcomes.  I can be as intelligent, mature, ethical and unselfish as possible and that will not guarantee certain results.

Why is that?  From the secular point of view, we come into our lives with many predetermined factors.  Our physical lives, ethnicity, time in history, birth order, family system, religion, and socio-economic situation dictate a great deal of how we will develop.  There will also be many influences along the way.  The choices parents make, teachers we have, opportunities, illnesses, choices we make, etc. will be part of the mix of who we become.  But, from the spiritual point of view, there are other factors that intervene and open up possibilities.  If one has the perspective of faith, one will see the action of God in his life in varying ways.

Why in “varying ways?”  Therese of Lisieux said that “Everything is a grace.”  Ignatius of Loyola said that we can and should “Find God in all things.”  Everyone will observe and interpret the action of God in the external world and the motions of God within ourselves in different ways.  Many people will be very conservative in believing that God is active at all in their lives.  Others will see God and God’s care in many events big and small throughout the day or week.  The most challenging context in which to affirm the presence of God will be in the experience of suffering.  It can be challenging to see God or any value in any experience of pain or difficulty.   Hurt, inconvenience, failure, addiction, and loss can all seem pointless and to be avoided.

How can suffering be okay or how can God allow it?  How could failure be a grace?  Why aren’t resources that I discover just something I did on my part?  And, further, why see God in my circumstances at all?  If my sister dies at a young age, how can that be okay?  If I spill breakfast cereal on my pants, how can that be a good thing?  Didn’t I figure out which graduate school to go to on my own?  Does God do my tax return?  Isn’t it important to take control of my life?  These questions are at the heart of the daily grind of our lives.  If God is here, what is he doing and why or how is this mess of a world okay?

The theology or meaning of Christ on the cross is at the center of this question.  What Christians believe is really strange but poses a answer that confounds all other interpretations of reality.  How can surrender in obedience and helplessness to a divine Father who loves him, be the apex of salvation — THE solution to the problem of evil and suffering?!  Look at the other solutions.   First, if we believe in God, that is a reality which encompasses and surpasses the immensity of the universe by definition.  So, scientific laws are included within the reality of God who is intelligent and complex beyond anything we can understand.  Second, things we think are bad because they feel painful may not be bad in an objective sense.  If my overall desire is to realize my potential fully, I may not even see what that is.  If I have desires to be happy in a certain way, I may not know  how to get there.  I may not see what is in the way.

With faith, one believes in a Sacred Reality that is close but also beyond my limitations.  I believe that this Reality is loving and personal.   At some point I may take a chance on this God and let him guide me.  My life may take me through suffering.  It may be at the hands of crude, misguided people.  I may get beaten up one way or the other.  I may make bad choices too.  With guidance I could learn to discern better decisions.  From the hurt of the past I can gain several things.  I may see that I am compassionate because I know what hurt is.  I may be an exquisitely good at setting limits and yet being generous.  I may know how to express myself clearly because I have had to protect myself.  I may see through the games of others. The suffering was in no way a waste or distraction — it was all good.

This learning, maturity, holiness is not something I can insert into myself.  It is part of a great mystery.  Something greater has made itself available to me.  The key resources are beyond the components of daily life.  I can go to yoga, the chiropractor, analysis, the health food store, school, have a great job and body, and be rich, and still not be on my true path.    If one is a person of religious faith, the only way to real happiness is surrender to God.  It is that blunt and simple.  This is so totally uncool that saying it is like marketing cat poop.   Okay, so we could say “Higher Power” and it might sound less “Churchy.”  The bottom line is that dependence on any authority figure is totally  unacceptable.  We are supposed to grow into greater and greater independence.  God is a weird old guy wearing white gowns who is out of touch and judges people.  So, that’s for later — when we die.  Admitting that I have a relationship with God, experience his presence on a daily basis and make decisions in relation to the inner motions of the heart is unusual for most people.

Yet somehow, a sizable segment of the Catholic/Christian population does have this experience.  They are middle of the road believers who know that they are being guided by God and still have their free will intact.  They surrender their inclination to demand that God explain it all.  They trust the mystery of how providence and freedom work, but they know the balance is real.  They base this trust on experience.  The care and challenge they feel from this divine reality is consistent, rational, reliable, helpful to them, and beyond their own abilities.  They would have abandoned their faith in God a long time ago if the results had been destructive.    They know when they “bump” into someone they need to see, that it is a gift.  They realize that the thought to travel down a certain road helped them avoid a pileup on the freeway.  When they lose a job they eventually see that it moved them out of a situation which was undermining their health.

Mystery, yes.  Surrender, yes.

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Posted by on Mar 25, 2012

The Church: LA Religious Education Congress

Hello from Los Angeles!

The Religious Education Congress has been excellent — energizing and enlightening.  There has been a decided focus on some basic topics and themes that have been unpopular with most Catholic progressives — things like sin and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  It’s all been integrated in a very interesting way.  I believe it may be in reaction to the accusations of the Catholic Right that everyone else in the Church has fallen off the deep end into perdition.  It is also probably in response to the reality of the need for evangelization regarding the need for God in the first place.

Religion is very un-PC at the moment.  “Sin” as a topic is a “no-no.”  Taking responsibility for hurtful acts is very difficult for most people.  The connection between sin and evangelization is that one cannot be a credible witness to the need for faith if one is living a chaotic or destructive life.  Many of the speakers pointed to the need for good decisions, being able to hear God’s voice in the midst of all the competing voices in our culture — security, money, appearances, status etc. —  and having a spiritual director or a personal spiritual coach in the person to whom one goes for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Matthew Kelly noted, “Holiness is attractive.”  We have so many Catholics outside the Church who have been hurt by someone in the Church that we have to look at how committed we are to our own faith — does it really matter?  We are attracted to a Mother Teresa.  She was only one person — a small one at that.  So, Kelly rightly asked — “What’s with the rest of us?”

It’s a good question — one that we would all do well to take as our focus during these final days of Lent and as we go into Easter.

 

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2012

Asceticism and Mysticism: The Two are Linked

The point of all efforts to change and grow is happiness. Happiness  involves becoming more and more conscious of who we are, what we want and need, and how to get these.   A lot of life is spent exploring all of this. We enjoy ourselves and suffer in the journey to try things out, learn new skills, problem solve, experiment.  We also react to phenomena,and defend and harm ourselves and others at times.  In the midst of this we learn to distinguish between gains and satisfactions that are short term vs. long term and things that may feel good and are helpful and things that feel good and are toxic.  I may love ice cream but if I eat a  lot of it I may trade away my joy because it can make me sick.

Identifying how I feel when I do things is important.  If I feel peaceful when I make a decision, the decision is probably going to be beneficial.  If I feel uncomfortable when I make a decision but decide to do the activity or acquire the commodity anyway, the end will probably be harmful for me.  If I do something out of fear it probably will ultimately harm me – i.e. marrying someone so I will not be alone is  not a good reason to marry someone.   Taking a job one loaths because the money is needed is something one should only do as a last resort.  It would be wise to ransack one’s soul, talk to every friend, pray and brainstorm about any weird angle on jobs before just settling for a terrible job.  It is often the case that our lives are forcing us to look at possibilities that up to this point we have had a closed mind about.  These interior markers are very reliable if one learns the art of discernment and is also given the grace of discernment.  The famous historian of religion, Joseph Campbell, was asked by Bill Moyers if he had a sense that he was guided when he made decisions.  Campbell replied that he felt the helping hands of many beings when he had the courage to do what he knew was right.

So, making a commitment to live an honest, non-addictive life – a life in which I can be my true self – requires the skills to discern the right path for me.  That kind of life is surrendered to the truth.  It is a life that is not grasping, fearful or egotistical.  It can be a life that is loving, just, courageous.  This is not an easy thing.  From the Catholic point of view, it is impossible unless one is empowered by a love that keeps one from despair.  The more one seeks love and justice, the more one also sees insensitivity and selfishness. We also become acutely aware of our own entanglement in fear, loneliness, pain, anger and disappointment.  We want to feel safe but we want to be creative and compassionate.  How to do that?

If people are connected to a reality that is larger than themselves – a community or a transcendent being – that person can go beyond his/her fears and trust.  The ability to do this has to be rooted in experience.  Faith/trust in life cannot be totally blind.  It has to be based on an encounter with goodness/love.  In the Catholic context people have experiences all the time of peace, the presence of the Sacred, being blessed and guided.  No one can prove the existence of God.  Experts of all stripes can reduce religious belief to a projection of one’s neurons or psychology.  The scientific method can be paraded out and empiricism presented as the only acceptable measure of whether the spiritual is real.  In the end all of those super respectable criteria are a chimera.  We don’t have to accept the idea that our reality fits itself into an instrument of measurement that we have created if the reality we want to define is greater than the instrument – i.e. if God is infinite yet personal, that Sacred Reality is well beyond the physics of our situation as we know it.

In the normal committed spiritual life people educate themselves and have important insights and growth.  But, within the context of meditation and a reflected upon life people also have periodic religious experiences.  These experiences sustain and guide them.  They are not addictive but energizing, healing and challenging.  These experiences are not just for the Saints.  And, becoming closer to God is not a “crutch.”  It is a break through to the way reality is.  Asceticism and mysticism are brother and sister.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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